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Our Lady of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 by 69 centimetres (41 in × 27 in), painted about 1131 in Constantinople

Our Lady of Vladimir[a] is a medieval Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child and an early example of the iconography of the Eleusa type. It is one of the most culturally significant and celebrated pieces of art in Russian history.

The icon was painted in Constantinople by an unknown 12th century artist. It was sent to Kiev as a gift before being transferred to the Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir. It is traditionally said that the icon did not leave the city until 1395, when it was brought to Moscow to protect the city from Mongol invaders, although the historical accuracy of this claim is uncertain. By at least the sixteenth century, it was in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow. It was moved to the State Tretyakov Gallery after the Russian Revolution. In the 1990s, it was relocated to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, where it remains today.

Following its near destruction in the thirteenth century, the icon was restored at least five times. Several national miracles have been attributed.




The surviving portion of the Bogolyubovo Castle

The icon is dated to the earlier part of the 12th century, and arrived in Russia around 1131. This is consistent with the account given in the chronicles.[1][2][3][4] Similar to other high quality Byzantine works of art, it is thought to have been painted in Constantinople.[4][5][6] Only the faces and hands are original, with the clothes repainted after suffering damage when a metal cover or riza was placed over them[1][4] and in a fire in 1195.[4][3]

About 1131 the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople sent the icon as a gift to Grand Duke Yuri Dolgorukiy of Kiev.[7][8] The academic Sona Hoisington attributes this in part to a greater effort by Byzantines to convert and christanize the Slavic peoples at the time.[9] It was kept in a Vyshgorod nunnery until Yuri's son, Andrey of Bogolyubovo, brought it to Vladimir in 1155.[7] Andrey placed it in his Bogolyubovo residence and built the Assumption Cathedral to legitimize his claim that Vladimir had replaced Kiev as Russia's principal city.[10] In 1169, he plundered Kiev and stole religious artwork including the "Mother of God" icon.[7] The icon was moved to the Assumption Cathedral after its consecration in 1160.

Prince Andrew removing the icon from a convent in Vyshgorod. A miniature from the Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible

According to tradition, the horses transporting the icon stopped near Vladimir, refusing to go further. For many Russians, this was interpreted as a sign that the Theotokos[b] wanted the icon to stay there. The place was named Bogolyubovo, or "the one loved by God". To house the icon, the Assumption Cathedral was built, soon followed by other churches dedicated to the Virgin. Its presence did not prevent the sack and burning of the city by the Mongols in 1238, when the icon was damaged by fire. It was restored soon after the event, and again in 1431 and in 1512.[11][12][8]

Transfer to MoscowEdit

This 16th-century icon shows Metropolitan Cyprian and Vasily I welcoming the Vladimir icon in Moscow

First published in 1512, a legend was formed that the icon was painted by Luke the Evangelist from its living subjects.[13] The intercession of the Theotokos through the image has also been credited with saving Moscow from Tatar hordes in 1451 and 1480.[14]

By ledge do, the image was taken from Vladimir to Moscow in 1395, during Tamerlane's invasion. The site where the Muscovites met the Vladimirs is commemorated by the Sretensky Monastery[c] which is considered to be built where it occurred. However, no archeological evidence supports this claim, and much of the fifteenth-to-sixteenth century church was destroyed after renovations by the Russian Orthodox Church.[15] Vasily I of Moscow spent a night crying over the icon, and Tamerlane's armies retreated the same day. The Muscovites refused to return the icon to Vladimir and placed it in the Dormition Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin.[16]

However, David Miller suggests that the icon was in fact normally still in Vladimir, with some excursions to Moscow until the 1520s. Crediting the icon with saving Moscow in 1395 does not appear in sources until the late 15th century and the full version of the story until accounts of 1512 and then the 1560s.[17] There is less doubt that, by at least the 16th century, the Vladimirskaya was a thing of legend and associated with the growth of Russian national consciousness based on the Muscovite state.[18]


Under the rule of the Bolsheviks, the icon came under control of the State Tretyakov Gallery where it was stored as a simple art piece.[19] In 1993, Our Lady of Vladimir was taken to Epiphany Cathedral for a religious service in the wake of tensions between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Duma. Though it was damaged during the excursion, it was soon restored and given to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi.[20][21]


Details of Our lady of Vladimir icon
Various stages of damage to and restoration of the icon, as analyzed by A. I. Anisimov

The icon is a tempera painting on wood, 106 by 69 centimetres (42 in × 27 in) in size, with the central 78 by 55 centimetres (31 in × 22 in) portion being original and the rest being a later expansion undertaken possibly to accommodate a larger riza. The icon depicts Jesus Christ as a child being held in the arms of his mother, Mary. They embrace cheek to cheek, with the child gazing towards and reaching for Mary. She holds him with one arm and glances towards the viewer. The faces and hands are painted with greenish olive sankir, a mix of ochre pigment and soot, and transparent layers of brighter ochre; the child's face is rendered in a lighter shade than the mother's, perhaps to reflect the difference in their age. The chid's clothes are painted with dark ochre and gold. The original painting bore the inscription ΜΡ ΘΥ, an abbreviation for 'Mother of God', of which only the 'M' survives.[22][8]

In its nine centuries of existence, the icon has been restored and overpainted at least five times to deal with damage and deterioration, including a fifteenth century restoration thought to be led by Andrei Rublev. According to art historian A. I. Anisimov, who participated in the most recent restoration in 1918-19, it is mainly the faces of Mary and Jesus, parts of their hands, and the gold background above her head that can be traced back to the original. The icon has been covered with several elaborately designed oklad and riza (revetments). The reverse, which is much less well known, contains an image of Hetoimasia ('prepared throne') and instruments of Christ’s Passion that was painted in ca. 14th century (prior to that the obverse side had a painting of an unidentified saint[23]).[22]

Hetoimasia and instruments of Christ’s Passion painted on the observe side of the icon in ca. 14th century.
A riza for the icon dating to 1657.

Among icons of Virgin Mary with Jesus, Our lady of Vladimir is classed as a Eleusa icon (Russian: Oumilenie), due to the tender attachment between mother and child.[24] Theologians and believers have also commented upon the icons symbology and the religious sentiments it inspires. Contemplating the icon, theologian Henri Nouwen, remarked that the Virgin's eyes glance at neither the child or the viewer but appear to "look inward and outward at once"; that her free hand gestures towards the baby to "open a space for us to approach Jesus without fear"; and, that the child is shown as "a wise man dressed in adult clothes."[25] Literary scholar, S. S. Averintsev interpreted the mix of maternal tenderness and poignant sorrow seen in Mary's expression, as representative of the emotions generated by the events of Nativity and Calvary, respectively.[24] Jesus's bare feet are seen as symbolizing his physical reality; his garments of gold, the kingdom of heaven; and the three stars on Mary's dress (one occluded by the child), "her virginity before, during and after her son’s birth."[26]

In addition to i ts significance as a religious icon, it’s artistic quality has been praised. According to the art historian David Talbot Rice, "[Our Lady of Vladimir] admitted by all who have seen it to be one of the most outstanding religious paintings of the world."[6] Art historian George Heard Hamilton praises its "craftsmanship and conception", and notes how in its representation of the subject's faces, the icon subtly transitions from its normal use of contour lines to a refined surface texture. It is painted in an artistic style typical for Byzantine art with features including smaller mouths, elongated noses, and refined eyes. However by avoiding the use of demarcating line, as became common in later Byzantine art, and by setting up the complex interplay of the mother and child's glances, the icon adds to the illusion of life in the piece. The child's features are reminiscent of classical sculpture, though the artirst renders an expression truer to an actual infant's.[8] The expressive and humanistic character of the icon differentiates it from earlier Byzantine art and exemplify the artistic developments seen during the reign of Komnenos dynasty.[3][5][6]


In Russian historyEdit

The icon is generally considered to be one of the most cherished symbols in Russian history.[20][27][28] Academic David Miller has ascribed this to its close connection to Russian national consciousness throughout its existence.[29] Its transfer from Kiev to Vladimir was used by Bogolyubsky to legatize Vladmir's claim as the new center of government in the Rus'.[8]

Additionally, its intimate association with important Russian historical events gave Our Lady of Vladimir the distinction of being a national palladium.[8][10] According to Peter Phillips, during the Battle of Moscow, Joseph Stalin had the icon flown around the city as the Germans began to invade.[10]

As a religious iconEdit

Our Lady of Vladimir's veneration is also likely enhanced by the fact that the Theotokos is regarded as the holy protectress of Russia.[10] The venerated image has been used in celebration of coronations of tsars, elections of patriarchs, and other important ceremonies of state.[10][19][30]

The icon has three feast days held throughout the year in celebration to specific events it is associated with:[14]

Location and displayEdit

The Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi in 2010
Our Lady of Vladimir on display within the church

Our Lady of of Vladimir is on display at the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi.[32][33] As a result of an agreement between the Tretyakov Gallery and Moscow Patriarchate, the church is both an active Russian Orthodox house church and functioning museum.[12] Previously, the famous work was the subject of a contentious ownership dispute between the two.[34][28]

In 1997, the Tretyakov Gallery a full restoration of the church was completed.[12] Security improvements to store and display art were added during this process, and an underground passageway was additionally made to connect it to the State Tretyakov Gallery.[35] In order to house the famous icon, a temperature controlled bulletproof glass case was commissioned.[12] On 7 September 1996, Our Lady of Vladimir was first installed in the special case located within the church, and the next day Patriarch Alexy II consecrated the church. According to Archpriest Nikolai Sokolov, the rector for the church, the case would able to withstand the firing of a Kalashnikov rifle as well as many other potential hazards.[36]

Due to its unique dual status as both church and museum, visitors are allowed to freely pray in front of the icon. Religious services are also held regularly to venerate the it on relevant occasions of importance to the gallery, church, or icon (including feast days). However, visitors can only enter the church through the Tretyakov Gallery and via the underground passageway.[12][36]

Copies and influenceEdit

Even more than most, the original icon has been repeatedly duplicated for centuries, and many copies also have considerable artistic and religious significance of their own.[37] According to Suzanne Massie, it became a standard for many later depictions of the Marian.[38]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Also known as Vladimir Mother of God or Virgin of Vladimir (Russian: Влади́мирская ико́на Бо́жией Ма́тери, Ukrainian: Вишгородська ікона Божої Матері, and the Theotokos of Vladimir (Greek: Θεοτόκος του Βλαντίμιρ)
  2. ^ Greek for Virgin Mary, literally meaning "Birth-Giver of God"
  3. ^ "Sretenie" being the Church Slavonic term for "meeting".
  4. ^ The dates provided are in both old and new style. The canonical dates for the feast days are in old style because the Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar. See Gregorian calendar § Difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates.


  1. ^ a b Weitzmann (1982), p. 17.
  2. ^ Tretyakov Guide (2000), p. 280.
  3. ^ a b c Runciman (1975), p. 154.
  4. ^ a b c d Miller (1968), p. 658.
  5. ^ a b Funk & Wagnalls (2018), database.
  6. ^ a b c Rice (1946), p. 89.
  7. ^ a b c Miller (1968), pp. 660–661.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Hamilton (1983), p. 107-8.
  9. ^ Hoisington (2019), database.
  10. ^ a b c d e Phillips (2011), database.
  11. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 658–659.
  12. ^ a b c d e Lebedeva (2006), online.
  13. ^ Miller (1968), p. 663.
  14. ^ a b Alekseyenko (2008), online.
  15. ^ Beliaev (1997), p. 38.
  16. ^ Evans (2004), p. 165.
  17. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 659–660.
  18. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 669–670.
  19. ^ a b Averintsev (1994), p. 613.
  20. ^ a b Russian Life (1999), p. 8.
  21. ^ The Economist (1993), pp. 109–110.
  22. ^ a b Bakatkina (2017), pp. 8-25
  23. ^ "Что скрывает обратная сторона иконы Владимирской Божьей Матери?". TVkultura (in Russian). 13 March 2014. Retrieved 24 August 2019.
  24. ^ a b Averintsev (1994), pp. 612-615
  25. ^ Nouwen (1985), pp. 387-389.
  26. ^ Forest, Jim (2008). Praying with Icons. Orbis Books. pp. 78–80. ISBN 9781608330775.
  27. ^ Nouwen (1985), p. 387.
  28. ^ a b Jackson (1995), p. 344.
  29. ^ Miller (1968), pp. 668–670.
  30. ^ Miller (1968), p. 657.
  31. ^ OCA (2016), online.
  32. ^ Tretyakov Guide (2000), pp. 278–280.
  33. ^ Pravda (2019), online.
  34. ^ The Economist (1993), database.
  35. ^ Insight Guides (2016), pp. 99–100.
  36. ^ a b Strelchik (2012), online.
  37. ^ Evans (2004), pp. 164–165.
  38. ^ Massie (1980), p. 45.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit